The ‘Pri Ha’Aretz

The Pri Ha’Aretz, or Rav Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk was one of the Jewish’s people’s biggest Tzaddikim, whose yahrtzeit falls out on the 1st of Iyar, just past. Let’s learn a little about who he was before we learn some of his Torah.

The Pri Ha’Aretz was connected to the students of the Maggid of Mezritch, and it’s brought down in the books that tell his life story that in his youth, he once met the Baal Shem Tov.

The Baal Shem Tov told him a whole long story that contained many details, and sometime after they met. The Pri Ha’Aretz commented that the Baal Shem Tov had essentially told him his life story, and everything that he would go through in the future.

Everything was contained in the story the Baal Shem Tov told him.

The Pri Ha’Aretz’s main Rebbe was the Maggid of Mezritch, who continued to forge the path of chassidut in the world after the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, and the Pri Ha’Aretz is held to be one of the Maggid’s biggest students.

In truth, we have no idea of the real greatness of the Maggid’s students, but if just recount some of their names, we’ll perhaps start to get a glimmer of who the Pri Ha’Aretz really was.

The Maggid’s students included: The Baal HaTanya, the Noam Elimelech, Reb Zushia of Anipoli, Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev – these were the Maggid’s closest group of students.

And amongst these students, the Pri Ha’Aretz was thought of as being the greatest.

Rebbe Nachman didn’t meet the Pri Ha’Aretz during his lifetime, because when Rabbenu was five years’ old, the Pri Ha’Aretz decided to make aliya to Eretz Yisrael. At first, he lived in Tsfat. 400 chassidim came as part of that first wave of aliya, and the Pri Ha’Aretz was their leader.

One of his main students was Rav Avraham of Kalisk, who Rebbe Nachman met when he came to Eretz Yisrael. Rabbenu heard a dvar Torah from him, and he afterward remarked that Rav Avraham was the only complete, whole Tzaddik that he’d actually met in his life.

But Rabbenu also has his own story about the Pri Ha’Aretz:

When Rabbenu was on the ship bringing him to Haifa from Istanbul, a huge storm arose, and the ship was in real danger of breaking up. Rebbe Nachman said that at this time, the Pri Ha’Aretz had appeared to him, and told him one of Hashem’s holy names that he could use to quiet the storm. Rebbe Nachman had concentrated on this name, and in this way, he and the ship had been saved.

All this occurred after the Pri Ha’Aretz had already passed away. As we explained, the Pri Ha’Aretz headed up the first aliya of chassidim to the holy land, which consisted of him and his students. He had a two-story house in Tiveria (Tiberius). He lived on the ground floor, and the upper floor was a synagogue.

Around 50 years’ ago, the Karliner chassidim bought this house, and you can still see it operating as a synagogue today, close to the lakeshore in Tiveria.

What was special about this synagogue is that not only the Pri Ha’Aretz prayed there, but Rebbe Nachman himself also prayed there, when he was in Israel. So there is a synagogue in Tiveria that can say both of these giants in Torah prayed within its walls.

We had the privilege of praying there a few times, and we could feel tremendous kedusha (holiness) there. Again, it’s on the main promenade in Tiveria, very close to the Abulafia synagogue.

In any case, Rav Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk authored a book on the weekly Torah portion which is called the Pri Ha’Aretz. In chassidut, it’s always said that this book is the Chassidic equivalent of the Rambam’s work, because it’s extremely deep, and the Pri Ha’Aretz writes in an extremely sharp and penetrating fashion.

Translated and adapted from the Ohr HaDaat newsletter by Rav Ofer Erez, #125.

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